Monday, January 17, 2011

Big Opinions and Big Conversations

So I was on The Big Questions again this morning. And it's up on iPlayer for the next 7 days if you want to watch it, click here. There's no particular bit to watch - I speak in all three debates.

I didn't get a chance to reply to some points though. I guess the biggest two are:

(1) "Islam's not a sexist religion, what do you know - you haven't read the Koran". Well firstly I have read quite a lot of the Koran but more to the point the people telling me Islam isn't sexist have also just said they would accept their husband having more than one wife but not accept a woman with several husbands. That's erm, what's the word, yes, sexist. And one of the people saying this is veiled to the point of only having her eyes visible - I have never seen a Muslim man dressed like this.

(2) "But as a feminist you must support these women converting to Islam because it's their 'choice'". No. I'm absolutely in favour of women having the right to make choices for themselves but only when they are able to do so on the basis of fair circumstances and true information.

The phrase "pro-choice" is used a lot when it comes to abortion - the right to choose what happens to your own body. But that's different when we're talking about a woman in China who has discovered she is pregnant with a girl in a family and culture where only a boy will do. She might be making that choice but it's not a choice made in fair circumstances. Similarly a vulnerable young woman who chooses not to terminate because a counsellor on a fake help line has told her to do so will give her breast cancer isn't acting on true information so again it's not a case of "her choice".

What we need to do is to take away the unfair circumstances and give women ready access to true information. Then their choice will be meaningful. But in the meantime we need to make sure women are not pushed into choices like this which can ruin their lives and leave them timidly peering out at what is left of their world through a tiny slit in a piece of fabric.

I had a very interesting message on the way home from a viewer: "I work for social services in mental health and I’ve seen a disturbing amount of converts (mostly female) to [Islam] I’m even working with the police as it would seem that there are radicals targeting people with mental health or people with a low IQ. I myself work with 4 people who have converted or are thinking about it. Any who I just wanted to say it’s great to see someone like yourself voicing there [their] opinions on national TV." Now that is both unsurprising and deeply deeply frightening.

This evening I did a much lighter piece on LBC about the British Comedy Awards and how Frankie "isn't Down's Syndrome hilarious" Boyle isn't even up for one or involved in the awards show. My conclusion was: great news, lets hope he stops it and/or goes away now. An on the other awards I'd like to give them to (from the nominees): David Mitchell, Jo Brand, Sarah Millican and Britain's best sitcom: Miranda! Love you all! You can listen to the show on the podcast from LBC but you have to register and I think pay money so I'll leave the link here - you have to follow the Richard Arnold show and today's episode is called 'Colin flying the flag' - but frankly if it's more than £2.50 I will cut you a deal and repeat my words verbatim over the phone for £2*!!

* Which would by the way be £2 more than my TBQ and LBC appearance fees combined, just for the next time someone says since they saw me on TV I must be super-rich!


jecadebu said...

The three white-woman-Muslim-converts featured on Big Opinion were so sad. Scientology clearly lost when they opted instead for Islam to "structure" their lives. I'm not at all surprised at the message from the social worker on the mental health of the targeted converts.

butterflywings said...

I have to say, I find the assumption that female converts to Islam have mental health problems or learning difficulties...problematic. I absolutely agree that feminists shouldn't support every 'choice' a woman makes, but at the same time, it is their choice. In a patriarchy, ALL women make 'choices' that are not ideal, mentally healthy or not. We have to. It's the nature of oppression. Choosing, for example, to wear high heels and make-up doesn't make a woman learning disabled or mentally ill - it's just that she only has so much energy to make the correct feminist decision, and chooses her battles.

Cruella said...

Yes I certainly don't mean to suggest all converts are vulnerable in these ways but rather that radicals might be targeting these groups.

Another issue is that of conversion for marriage. And it's a double-sided issue because some marital conversions may be superficial and staged just to appease family. Mr Cru and I smashed a glass underfoot at our wedding as a not to his Jewish heritage. But we don't really believe or live by the rules of Judaism or anything... For others it's more serious. And I suspect for some people it starts out as one thing and changes as things develop: either because they take and interest in the religion and get further into it or because they find it stifling and restricting and push away from it.

Unknown said...

People with learning difficulties and mental health problems are vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation from many different people, not just missionary organisations - employers, care workers, education authorities, and their own families, to name a few. Then there are all the pundits (politicians, journalists, bloggers) who cash in on the prejudice that such people are incapable of making informed life choices for themselves. The social worker of one of my best friends wrote a report on her that made her recent weekend at a Christian retreat centre sound like a sinister prelude to joining a full-scale cult. My friend is one of the most down-to-earth and self-assured people I've ever met, yet there are people in her life who are all too ready to blame her illness for any choice she makes that doesn't sit neatly with their own prejudices. (Not that they see themselves as prejudiced, of course!) The tragic thing is that these professional 'reports', and not my friend's own account of her experiences, will be given the most weight when it comes to her medical treatment, her social support, and so on. It's a nasty insidious form of silencing, and unfortunately there are too many people in the feminist community who are complicit in it. That much is obvious from Jecadebu's comment - she evidently feels competent to issue psychiatric diagnoses to three women whom she does not know on the basis of their appearance on Big Opinion. The pathologising of dissenting voices is extremely worrying, particularly when it's women doing it to other women.

Kate, if your aim wasn't to silence the women you were talking to (or at the very least to cast doubt on their ability to make free choices) I don't understand why you mentioned mental illness at all - particularly not in the context of that social worker's message to you. So the SW has four clients who have converted to Islam. But what is her total caseload? Can those four people really be taken as a representative sample? Furthermore, 25% of the population experience mental distress at some point in their lives. That's an enormous number of people. To establish whether there is a link between mental illness and conversion to Islam (particularly radical Islam), you would have to see whether the rate of occurence within the convert community is higher than it is in the general population. Unfortunately, even correlational studies are no guarantee of arriving at the true answer. According to the bare statistics, the rate of schizophrenia and other psychotic illness is far higher amongst black people than it is amongst whites, but I very much doubt that this is because black people are inherently more prone to schizophrenia - it's likely to be due to bias (probably unconscious) on the part of the diagnosing doctor. Equally, most people diagnosed with personality disorders are female. It isn't that males never have complex attachment and emotional problems stemming from infancy; it is just that their behaviour is less likely to be interpreted in this framework.

Cruella said...

You don't seem to have quite understood the point(s) I am making.

I quite agree that the diagnosis of mental illness is a hugely controversial one. I know many women close to me who have been told they are mentally ill but who feel they are actually just angry about a real situation, etc. But just because the diagnosis can be controversial doesn't mean that there aren't people with mental illnesses who are rendered vulnerable as a result of that illness.

I haven't (anywhere) said anyone who converts to Islam is mentally ill*. Nor is that my point. But I also think we can't just dismiss out of hand the notion that some fanatics may be targeting people who are or who they perceive as vulnerable.

*Interesting discussion though - certainly we would accept delusions as a symptom of mental illness. And certainly all religions require believing things which are patently untrue...

Unknown said...

I am a single white female convert to islam age 31 and know plenty of other female and male converts in this country who are highly educated and live a balanced life both physically and spiritually. From my experience it takes extensive research and study into the world, governments, language, history and science before i converted and i find it deeply offensive that you would think that this is out of some defect in our mental capacity!!lol I think 'mentally sane' atheists should do some study of their own before judging anyone else!

Cruella said...

Perhaps you could highlight to me the bit where I said anyone who converts to Islam is mentally ill? I didn't say that anywhere or ever. What I said was that according to an email I had some extremists might be targeting the mentally ill and trying to convert them.

And I am deeply deeply offended at the notion that I haven't done my research. On the contrary I have done enormous amounts of research into a wide range of religions from Islam to the much more credible Flying Spaghetti Monster (all hail his noodly appendage) and I base my opinions on scientific fact and repeatable experimentation.

Perhaps you'd like to share with my readers your reasons for converting and we can discuss what research you've done into these matters?

Unknown said...

The main thing that everyone misses is that religion of any type or kind was conceived by men to basically control women a long time ago. The women in some relationships are brainwashed in their upbringing, and don't know about a free way of life.

ابو علي said...

Hi Cruella,

I always enjoy watching you on the Big Questions. I am an ex-Muslim and now an Agnostic Atheist. I often wish I could go on the show and put some of those religious nuts in their place - keep up the good work. Oh and btw I used to be a teacher at Islamia Primary School in London (the one founded by Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam) and we had many mums who were English converts (it's usually women converts to Islam) and tbh I got the impression that their conversion to Islam was not so much about how wonderful Islam is but because they fell in love and married a Muslim. In other words a more emotional reason than a rational/logical one.

Best wishes,


btw If you are interested I wrote my story here: